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News / Nation & World

The high cost of living is still biting the UK. Many don’t think the election will change anything

By SYLVIA HUI, Associated Press
Published: June 17, 2024, 9:56am

LONDON — Dominic Watters watches his gas and electricity meter like a hawk. He topped it up a few days ago, but now there’s just 1.85 pounds ($2.40) of credit left. That may determine what kind of dinner he and his teen daughter get tonight, he says.

Watters, a campaigner for better access to nutritious food, is a single dad in Canterbury in southern England who relies on government welfare. He knows microwave meals don’t compare to home-cooked dinners, but sometimes he simply cannot afford to use the gas stove or oven.

“It’s become more and more of a struggle, especially for single parents on benefits,” he said. “It leaves you feeling stranded. It doesn’t allow you enough to pay for fresh fruit and vegetables, and also to pay for the gas and electric to cook the food.”

Since calling a general election for July 4, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been at pains to repeat a key message on the campaign trail: The economy is turning a corner. Inflation is down. Things are looking up.

That’s not the reality for Watters and millions across the U.K. still feeling the squeeze from high food, energy and housing prices. The persistent cost-of-living crisis is a top concern for voters in the parliamentary election, when they will choose lawmakers to fill all 650 seats in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that can command a majority — either alone or in coalition — will become prime minister.

While Sunak’s Conservatives are widely expected to lose after 14 years in power, the dire state of the economy — combined with a deep disillusionment with politics and politicians among voters — means that the prevailing mood ahead of the election is one of malaise, not excitement or hope for change, even if the opposition Labour Party wins.

Although inflation has returned to near-normal levels after skyrocketing in recent years, energy bills and items on store shelves still cost more than they did before the pandemic, when they started their steep climb. And while wages are starting to rise, mortgages and rents have soared along with interest rates, taking large chunks out of many household incomes.

Coral Dyer, a psychologist who has a young child, was among shoppers lining up to buy 1-pound ($1.30) bowls of fresh vegetables at a bustling street market in Lewisham in south London on a recent day.

“It’s much cheaper than the supermarket, and you get a lot more,” she said. Money’s becoming tighter, she added, with her income just about covering high day care fees.

Dyer, 37, laughed and shook her head when asked if she agreed with Sunak’s upbeat message.

“I don’t really feel that way, no,” she said. “I think we’re being more conscious of buying in bulk, to shop and eat in different ways to save some money. It’s becoming less of a choice and more of the way we have to do things.”

Like other countries, Britain experienced a double economic shock when it was hit by surging prices, first stoked by supply chain issues during the coronavirus pandemic and then by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

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Inflation in the U.K. hit a peak of 11 percent in late 2022, the highest the country had seen in four decades. For most, especially public sector workers, take-home pay failed to keep up with spiraling prices.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a leading think tank, said in March that the current parliament has overseen the worst growth in living standards since at least 1961. It added that from 2019 to 2023, the number of adults who reported being unable to adequately heat their homes more than doubled.

Sunak is keen to point out that the worst appears to be over: Inflation is now down to 2.3 percent, and average wages are also rising after more than a decade of low income growth following the 2008 financial crisis.

But there’s little to be jubilant about. The latest official figures published last week showed that economic growth was flat in April, after rising 0.6 percent during the first quarter of the year.

The IFS and many economists have warned that whoever wins the election will face tough choices to raise taxes or cut public spending because they will need to wrestle with a huge debt burden while trying to take Britain out of economic stagnation.

For those on benefits or low incomes, talk about change or growth feels distant when it’s a daily struggle to afford food staples and heating. Britain’s poorest have been disproportionately hit by the cost-of-living crisis because they spend a much larger share of their incomes on essentials.

More people are falling into poverty and more are turning to food banks, according to the Trussell Trust, which runs more than half of all U.K. food banks. The charity said it provided 3 million emergency food parcels to people in need last year — a record number for the trust — including to over 300,000 people who used a food bank for the first time.

At the Community Food Hub in Hackney in east London, a rapidly gentrifying area that nonetheless still has one of the highest child poverty rates in the U.K., volunteers say their workload has not lessened in recent years as they packed up bread and canned food for patrons.

“I’m hoping that these elections are going to prove to be fruitful. I personally doubt it,” said Michelle Dornelly, who has run the service since the pandemic. “I’ve kind of given up hope with these politicians and them understanding the common people, the working class people. I am kind of fed up that they won’t take the time out to come and see what it is that we’re doing and how people are living.”

While Labour has a significant lead in polls and they’re widely expected to win by political commentators and members of the public, there is a deep lack of optimism or belief among voters that either Sunak or his rival, Keir Starmer, can bring material change.

Watters, the food campaigner, said things won’t get better until those in power take time to listen to struggling families.

“I think that it’s been so bad for so long that people are trying to hold out hope for a change,” he said. “But there is a kind of shared sense of hopelessness within my estate (social housing block) of whether change will actually happen, no matter what government, gets in.”

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